Spring is for new life.
I have twelve baby chickens and trays of green seedlings in my basement. I have a teetering stack of new books by my chair.
One of those books is by Hilary Yancey. I’ve shared her beautiful words in this space before. She writes with rare wisdom and lyricism, and I look forward to digging into Forgiving God: A Story of Faith as much as I can’t wait to dig into my garden. This is the story of Hilary’s pregnancy with her firstborn, Jackson, and her journey through his diagnosis with craniofacial microsomia at a 20-week ultrasound. It’s a story of working to believe in miraculous healing, and confronting God when the miracles don’t look the way she expected.
It’s a story of learning to leave behind old expectations to make room for something wider, and wilder.
I am so glad to host Hilary’s reflections at my home online today.
I am not one to despise Your gifts.
May You be blessed
Who spread the riches of Your sweetness
For my zeal…
Let my small span of ardent life
Melt into our great communal task;
To lift up to Your glory
This temple of sweetness,
A citadel of incense,
A holy candle, myriad-celled,
Moulded of Your graces
And of my hidden work.
– “The Prayer of the Bee” by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold, translated by Rumer Godden
When I was in high school I was once described by a new friend as doing a kind of “butterflying” – from person to person, subject to subject, leaving conversations half-finished or always to be continued. I had, in the thoughtlessness of a fifteen year-old experiencing peer acceptance, jumped from lunches to free periods and neglected her. I hadn’t realized that she moved more carefully, finishing each thing before taking up the next one. I apologized profusely, and we went on to build a friendship in chemistry classes and after school theater. But I vowed to myself that I would change, I would abandon my butterfly ways. I would be slow, I told myself. I would be wise.
Have you ever kept a promise too well? Have you ever been so good at becoming more like someone else that you left yourself behind?
Three years later, at the start of my freshman year of college, my mentor told me that I was too flighty. I came in, as she once called it, in “a gust of disquiet.” I was so anxious to prove that I could be a quiet soul. I remember trying to practice daily prayer in the windowless study room of my dorm, growing bored in the words even as I willed myself to practice, practice, practice what I assumed she meant by stillness and calm.
In trying to become wise, I have been trying to become someone else. I assumed wisdom was sturdy, like wood, that you had to carve in yourself a space for it to live. I assumed I was the wrong shape for it, that to acquire it, to be the better friend and the wiser soul, I had to sand down and rework the architecture of my heart.
During the day, my daughter sleeps in fits and starts—fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, a rare hour—waking with a surprised widening of her eyes and then a smile that slowly creeps across her face, indenting at her dimples that echo her brother so strongly. Her waking hours stretch and bend, winding like a river through our days. She is never asleep that long, she is always looking for a reason to wake up.
My son gallops through the day, racing from backyard to coffee maker to puzzles and books. His energy is just barely contained by the limits of the sun going down and coming back up. He is a tidal wave, dancing to a record or to the NYC Ballet’s Nutcracker movie, and he thunders his life around me. He moves so fast, and I feel the stretch of my body and mind to keep up with him.
Perhaps the shape of wisdom isn’t always wood. Perhaps sometimes it’s water.
My children echo back to me parts of myself I put away back when I assumed that remaking myself was the way that I could honor God. But of course, God doesn’t ask us to become other people, even other wise people. God asks instead that we become ourselves.
Lord, I am not one to despise Your gifts.
And I am the bee, the scattered heart, the wave. I am built for movement and for restlessness, I am built with too many loves which always feel like too few. The other day I told Jesus I want to learn to play the banjo. The other day I told Jesus I want to study the structure of our immune system. The other day I told Jesus I could spend my days rereading Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems out loud. Perhaps this is you, this restless movement. Perhaps you are more like a tortoise or an owl, perhaps your wisdom is in how you keep watch or how you pace yourself through the world. Perhaps you are built for a different kind of movement.
Lord, I am not one to despise Your gifts.
I wrote Forgiving God because there was a book in me and it was bursting to come out. I wrote it to search for God, to find a way to confront him and a way to lean on him. I moved restlessly then, writing twenty minutes here, ten minutes there. I labored, I hope, like the bee – gathering hope from a thousand flowers to build something up.
But this I hope more than anything else – that this book, this small span of ardent life—melts into the task before us all: that together, we lift up for God’s glory something holy and beautiful. That we, in the many ways we might be wise, whether slow paced or ceaselessly moving, whether more like a tortoise or more like a bee, we live ardently. That our tasks come together to offer something fragrant and good.
And wisdom can be like water, and it can fill all kinds of hearts.
Hilary is a student of the surprise hidden within the every day. She explores the challenges and blessings of marriage, motherhood, and a life of faith–and how these are expanded and changed by disability. Hilary is also a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Baylor University and lives with her husband, Preston, and two children in Waco, Texas. Her blog can be read at www.hilaryyancey.com.
September at Maplehurst is for birthdays and books.
And birthday apple pie.
Both of my daughters were born in September. This year, only four days apart, my big girl turns fourteen and my little girl turns five.
September at Maplehurst is also for full hearts and grateful tears.
My favorite gifts to give are books, and this month I have a stack of new favorites to give family and friends.
Shawn Smucker’s beautiful new novel The Day the Angels Fell would be perfect for the fourteen-year-old in your life. It would also make a great family read aloud with younger kids, and, honestly? I’m also telling the adult readers I know all about this winsome fantasy. If you’re a fan of Madeleine L’Engle, Neil Gaiman, or even Wendell Berry, then you’ll appreciate this beautifully written, spiritually rich story. This is a gorgeous, gift-worthy hardback edition, too.
You might worry that your child is too young or too sensitive for a book about death, but I can think of few better ways to introduce the topic than through the work of a gifted storyteller like Shawn. Local friends, I’ll be hosting a reading and book signing by Shawn at my home some time in October. Please do reach out to me for more details!
My friend Sara Hagerty has just released Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World That Loves To Be Noticed. This is also a beautiful, hardback edition with a cover design I love, but, of course, the real treasure is inside.
Sara’s quietly powerful story will transform how you think about success. I am personally grateful to her for giving me a fresh, new perspective on what it might mean to change the world.
GraceLaced: Discovering Timeless Truths Through Seasons of the Heart, by my talented friend Ruth Chou Simons, may be the ideal book for gift-giving. Ruth is a devotional writer and visual artist, and her book is the most exquisite thing on any of my over-stuffed bookshelves. Featuring her own watercolor floral art, luminous photography, and special touches like pretty endpapers and a cover begging you to touch it, this is a book lover’s book.
The seasonal meditations are written in a classic, not at all sentimental devotional style and include beautiful spaces for personal responses and notes. I’m convinced we all know someone who would love to receive this book for an autumn birthday or Christmas gift, or, goodness, maybe just because?
One of my favorite mystery writers, Louise Penny, has just released Glass Houses, the 13th installment in her Chief Inspector Gamache series, set in the quaint Quebec village of Three Pines. You could read Glass Houses on its own, but I highly recommend beginning with the first. The story builds from book to book, and you’ll appreciate the slow unfolding of these characters’ lives.
Louise Penny isn’t the most literary or polished of the mystery writers I appreciate, and yet there is something about her cozy village and philosophical Inspector that has earned this series a very special place on my bookshelf. Penny’s authorial presence can be a little heavy-handed. In writing-workshop speak she is more likely to tell than to show, but that style suits her material. I, for one, want to hear everything Penny has to say. In the character of kindly Armand Gamache and the evocative Quebec setting (not to mention the delicious details of food and drink!), Penny offers serious but cozy reflections on the human heart, relationships, and the nature of evil. There aren’t many mysteries with the heart and soul of these.
If you are a book lover then you probably already know Anne Bogel’s fabulous podcast What Should I Read Next. If not, well, you’re welcome. Anne’s first book (with its own beautiful cover) releases very soon. Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything is the book many of us have been waiting for.
In it, Anne uses personal storytelling to distill the wisdom of various personality tests and templates. If you’ve ever wanted to understand yourself and others better but found the big books on the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs or the Five Love Languages to be too technical or time-consuming, then Anne’s book is for you. Or if, like me, you already love the discoveries these personality frameworks make available, you’ll appreciate this fresh, enjoyable, and personal perspective.
That’s all for now. I’m off to make a little girl’s birthday cake.
But first, which new books do you have your eye on? I’d love to hear.
P.S. I’m giving away a calendar of my flower photography on instagram this week.
The view from my window is more January than March, thanks to a late-season blizzard.
The worst of the storm hit north and west of us, but we still have more snow, and colder temperatures, than we’ve seen all winter. Yet more snow is driving hard past my window, but the wind is scouring our driveway clean. I am glad since Tuesday’s heavy, wet snowfall damaged the snowplow we attach to our tractor mower. Of course, I write “we” in the most generous sense because my contribution to clearing snow is keeping the children out of their father’s way.
It’s a strange day to browse my favorite gardening books, but this is the middle of March, and I must keep faith with the angle of the sun, no matter the peculiarities of the weather.
The literary letters Elizabeth and I have recently exchanged here on the blog have had me giving a great deal of thought to the epistolary genre. As a form of artistic creation, it is centuries old, though today’s epistolary novels are perhaps more likely to include email transcripts than handwritten letters.
It is not a form you tend to see in garden writing, but exploring the form these past few weeks has reminded me of the quality I most appreciate in my favorite gardening books: that is, the singular human voice writing from a particular time and place.
My preferred gardening books are written by gardeners who love their own plot of earth and know it well. It is tempting to think their advice might be of only local importance. The needs of my own garden will be very different from a garden with rocky New England soil near the salt-air of the ocean. Yet I find precisely the opposite to be true. This may be one more case of greater love leading to greater wisdom.
Here are a few of my favorite garden books, just in time for spring. These are not exhaustive and impersonal garden reference books. These are more like letters from a gardener, or better yet, missives from a particular plot of cultivated earth. I hope they inspire you to better love the ground beneath your own feet.
- Henry Mitchell is one of my favorite garden writers. Usually he makes me laugh out loud, but he often surprises me with eloquence and emotional insight. For many years he wrote a garden column for The Washington Post, and it is these columns that make up collections like The Essential Earthman and One Man’s Garden. His style, geared toward local Washington D.C. newspaper readers, probably comes the closest to the intimacy of the epistolary form.
- Tara Austen Weaver’s memoir Orchard House is a perfect example of why I prefer the personal rather than the encyclopedic approach to garden reading. I am easily overwhelmed by lists of plant varieties, but when Weaver praises a particular variety of homegrown strawberry, I find that I want to plant and taste nothing else. This is a lovely memoir of growing a garden and healing a family.
- If you enjoy Michael Pollan’s approach to food writing, you will love his gardening book: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. It is another well-researched book filtered through Pollan’s everyman voice and his particular gardening adventures. Flipping through my tattered old copy, I’ve decided it’s time for me to reread it.
- I do not recommend Katharine S. White’s book Onward and Upward in the Garden to many people. If yours is only a casual interest in garden writing, this may not be the book for you. However, if you are at all intrigued by the idea of an experienced gardener and knowledgeable writer examining seed and plant catalogs as a reviewer would study a just-released novel, then you might enjoy this book as much as I do. Here is another enticement: Katharine was the wife of E.B. White, and her descriptions of their Maine garden helped me to see Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan in a fresh light.
- The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy leans more toward the encyclopedic, but this astonishing account of the importance of native landscaping for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of our planet is told through from the perspectives of scientists making important observations in their very own gardens. I used to think that native plants were a nice extra, but Darke and Tallamy have transformed my thinking. This may be one of the most important garden books you read.
- If you love keeping fresh flowers in your home, I highly recommend the beautiful just-released book Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden by Erin Benzakein. This book is practical, gorgeous, and inspiring.
I’d love to know: do you read garden books?
And if you’d like to read a little more from me, here is my latest post for Grace Table: “Sunlight, Shadows, and a Supper Club.”
Ready or not the seasons are shifting.
Of course, we know in our heads that all time moves at the same speed, but our hearts simply will go on beating to some other, more mysterious, rhythm.
Sometimes the gap between those two experiences of time feels like a chasm. We stand on the edge, our hearts out of sync with the calendar, and we fear we will tumble, head over heels, into emptiness. But there are other days. Like Advent days. Then the gap between head-time and heart-time becomes a sacred place and a welcome retreat.
In the last November chapter of Roots and Sky, I wrote this:
I believe in sacred time. We may live in a world of Sunday-morning soccer games, Sunday-afternoon birthday parties, and twenty-four-hour shopping, but I believe there are days when eternity floods our time-bound existence. Days like a cup that runneth over. I also know that without some effort on my part, all time tends to look exactly the same, whether or not it is the same. Advent is beginning, and I want to set aside the days. To mark them off and probe their depths.
The primary way I do that, alone and together with my husband and children, is through books. If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know that my archives are full of book recommendations for Advent and Christmas. I recently updated the page ( These Farmhouse Bookshelves) where you can explore all those links.
However, with Advent beginning on Sunday, and the first of December only days away, I thought a little roundup was in order. Here are several new-to-me titles and a shelf-full of old favorites.
And, for those of you who can’t think of Advent until after you’ve eaten your Thanksgiving turkey, here is my latest post at Grace Table. It’s a reflection on grief and gratitude and includes a recipe for the prettiest dish I placed on my holiday table last year. Enjoy!
My friend Kris Camealy has just published a beautiful new Advent devotional, Come, Lord Jesus: The Weight of Waiting. I read an advance copy months ago, but I am looking forward to reading it again, more slowly and prayerfully, through the month of December.
I have forgotten now who recommended to me Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by Sarah Arthur. I’ve only skimmed the pages, but these words from the book jacket have me eager to dive in: “Readers are invited to experience Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany in its raw strangeness, stripped of sentiment ….” Those words remind me of Madeleine L’Engle’s description of Advent as The Irrational Season (another favorite book for this season).
Two devotionals I have always appreciated in the past are God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas from Paraclete Press and Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, a collection that includes selections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis, and many others
During Advent, we aim to light the candles in our Advent wreath and read a special devotional each evening together. I say aim because, of course, there are nights when I call the whole thing off because all four of the kids insist on fighting over the candle snuffer. I have also learned (the hard way) not to expect my children to sit still for nightly readings without also giving them freshly-sharpened colored pencils and a Christmas coloring book like the Christmas Around the World Coloring Book by Dover.
Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas by Ann Voskamp has been a great companion to our Jesse Tree, but it would make an ideal daily devotional for a family even if you do not decorate a Jesse Tree. This is a substantial book with gorgeous illustrations. The language is rich and poetic enough to capture the attention of my older kids, but the readings are brief and linked to familiar Bible stories, so it works for younger children, too. If you only have very young children, I recommend using The Jesus Storybook Bible for your Advent devotions. There are exactly twenty-four stories from the beginning through to the wise men visiting the infant Jesus, making it perfect for introducing small children to the bigger story of Jesus’s birth during the month of December.
For years, I gave my children a new Advent or Christmas-themed picture book each Sunday of Advent. We now have an impressive collection, though I picked up most of the books during the year for twenty-five cents at a local thrift store. This does mean that our collection is less, well, curated than I might like. But a picture book we all love this time of year is Astrid Lindgren’s Christmas in Noisy Village. This is a delightfully simple description of Christmas celebrations on three Swedish farms packed with young children.
Last year, we read a strange little novel called The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. You may know Sophie’s World, also written by this former professor of philosophy from Norway. Some of the strangeness may come from Gaarder’s philosophical bent, and some of it may simply be the little things that can be lost in translation, but the result is a curious, compelling Advent mystery that my kids and I both loved. The story follows the opening of a magical Advent calendar, and so it is already divided into chapters readymade for daily Advent reading. The central mystery involves a journey back through history to the very day and place of the Christ Child’s birth. It reads like following a thread back to that particular momentous day, and the result is that I felt much more solidly connected to the very first Christmas as an actual historical event.
This year, our readaloud chapter book is Winterfrost by Michelle Houts. We are one chapter in, and the kids are already hooked by this tale of Christmas magic on an isolated Danish farm.
Though our seasonal books have spilled over from shelves to piles on the windowsills, I have added one more new book to our Advent collection this year. It is Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season by Heidi Haverkamp. Designed for small group discussion, I think this one will also work well for families, especially if you plan to read it alongside The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
I’d love to hear about your own favorite Advent and Christmas books in the comments.
The record of post drafts here on my blog dashboard tells me that on January 14, 2016, I was working on a new installment in my occasional series of book recommendations, These Farmhouse Bookshelves.
I never finished that post, and I didn’t read anything for a month.
I want to finish that post, but I can’t finish it seamlessly. Everything is before and after for us right now, and so much in our lives is sorting itself out around that dividing line. I feel such compassion for our before selves. They are innocent and unseeing, and it hurts to think of all that they didn’t yet know.
Still, if I could go to them and give them some message it wouldn’t be anything earth shattering or even all that original. It would be only the well-known words from Frederick Buechner:
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
When I began this post, my before self was still waiting for snow to fall at Maplehurst. This has been the mildest and strangest winter anyone around here can remember. Three feet of snow fell while I was with family in Hawaii, but now I have seen the tops of the daffodils emerging a full month early.
With no snow outside, Elsa and I enjoyed Snow by Cynthia Rylant. Actually, I may have read it to myself a few times after Elsa fled my lap. It’s that good.
It captures everything I love about snow and hits that perfect blend of truth, poetry, and accessibility. I am often frustrated with the more self-consciously beautiful or poetic picture books because they aren’t concrete enough to grab my child’s attention.
If you’ve ever read a book to a three-year-old you know they can’t hear the line “the snow looks like ice cream” without interrupting, “Where’s the ice cream? Where, where?”
Poetry that doesn’t rely only on direct metaphors is a great thing in a picture book. Is the best snow the snow that comes in the night or the snow that sends you home from school? There is poetry in that question even a three-year-old can understand.
My before self had also begun reading a great new book called To the Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming, and Community by Lisa Graham McMinn.
A book about “eating with more intention, compassion, and gratitude,” I would recommend this book to everyone who enjoys Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, or Fred Bahnson’s Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith.
The illustrations and recipes that accompany each chapter are delightful and there are discussion questions that would make this book perfect for a book club. This book is full of rich spiritual wisdom and well-researched information, but it is a lot of fun to read, too.
A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about family and friendship.
I had just returned from a reunion with my parents, siblings, and our (many) children at my parent’s home in Kansas City. I wrote about how hard it is to live far from family and to see them so infrequently. I wrote about that emptiness, and I wrote about the special ways God fills that emptiness.
Now my after self knows that was the last time I would see my brother-in-law Shawn. Soon after that visit, my sister and her family moved to Hawaii.
Of course, that small blog post means so much more to me now, but I might not even have remembered it if a book had not been waiting for me when I returned home from Hawaii.
The Gift of Friendship: Stories That Celebrate the Beauty of Shared Moments, edited by writer and photographer Dawn Camp, is a collection of reflections by Christian bloggers. Dawn has gathered meditations on friendship by bloggers like Lisa-Jo Baker, Tsh Oxenreider, Jennifer Dukes Lee, and many others.
My post is there, too.
And I have yet one more reason to believe that though the future is, mercifully, hidden from us, it is never hidden from God.
You are each invited to an online book club for my book Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons.
Hosted by writer and editor extraordinaire, Laura Brown of the website Makes You Mom, the discussions will take place each Wednesday during the month of March.
Makes You Mom is a literary website that celebrates motherhood and welcomes anyone whose life has been shaped by a mom.
I will show up occasionally to answer questions, but I will not listen in or interfere in the discussion. Laura and I want everyone who participates to feel free to ask their hardest questions.
You can find more information about the book club here.